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  • Bulldozing the Subject
  • Elizabeth A. Wheeler

Cut #1: Mudanzas

When I hear the word “postmodernism” I see white people moving into the neighborhood and brown people having to move out.

My friend Tinkerbell from Tustin and I used to live in an apartment building wedged between a condominium and a tenement. We went to an open house in the condominium; the units sold for $275,000–$300,000 apiece. It looked like the QE II. The architect had added portholes, interior vistas, and pink balustrades. I went out on the balcony of the penthouse. Through the pink railings I saw a moving truck below, a small local one with “Mudanzas” painted on the side, the kind that carries Puerto Rican families further out from the city where they can still afford to live.

When I hear postmodernism I see pink balustrades in the foreground with a gray truck behind them. Not the balustrades alone, but also the changes—the mudanzas.

It is no accident that the Brooklyn Academy of Music, showcase for the latest postmodern compositions, defines one edge of a neighborhood called Park Slope, a neighborhood formerly working-class but now home to young professionals. It is no accident that the Temporary Contemporary museum of art in Los Angeles is housed in a renovated factory a block from Skid Row. It is no accident that postmodern architecture imprints itself most firmly on the urban landscape in the form of upmarket shopping malls. Postmodernism and gentrification are partners in joint venture.

“. . . the scenario of work is there to conceal the fact that the work-real, the production real, has disappeared,” writes Jean Baudrillard (Simulations 47). He is wrong in thinking that production has vanished from the face of the earth; it has instead moved to the Third World. He is right in touching on the unreality of life in postindustrial cities.

It is thus extremely naive to look for ethnology among the Savages or in some Third World—it is here, everywhere, in the metropolis, among the whites, in a world completely catalogued and analysed and then artificially revived as though real . . .


I write this essay towards an ethnology of postmodernism. It starts with an image of a city street: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. On Melrose, a district of stylish boutiques, there is a store painted in Day-Glo colors and stenciled with skulls like the Mexican images used in celebrating el Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead. The store is extremely successful and has counterparts in many American cities. It specializes in ‘kitsch’ artifacts: sequin picture frames, pink flamingoes, Barbie lunch boxes, but particularly inexpensive Mexican religious articles. As Baudrillard says, consumer culture needs to “stockpile the past in plain view” (19). The store has a day-of-the-dead quality: when the plastic dashboard Virgins go up on the shelves next to the plaster Elvises, pop nostalgia renders every icon equivalent. The experience of shopping there seems to have the power to cancel out the real experience of growing up Chicano/a and Catholic. “For ethnology to live, its object must die”—“. . . the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference” (13, 11).

I feel a guilty fascination for the store because it looks very much like my own aesthetic. I have always loved bright colors, colors that looked garish in my parents’ suburban home with its white walls, white curtains, white dishes. And for years I have collected Mexican religious articles, sneaking into botanicas where no one spoke English, hoping they wouldn’t divine the irreligious, “inauthentic” uses to which I planned to put such items. When I walk into the store on Melrose, I see my own secret life as a kitsch consumer exposed.

I like to think, however, that there is more going on between me and my Virgins of Guadalupe than my making fun of them. With their angels and showers of roses, I find them beautiful and redemptive. They speak to my desire to connect with the powerful symbols of another culture, and my Protestant longing for a spirituality that has festive colors and a Mother in it. My taste also has an element of defiance: when...

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